Six pretty surprising things you’d never know about MasterChef if you weren’t on the show.
In March, MasterChef called. Could I come to Los Angeles to be one of 17 VIP food-critic judges on an episode with a special Critics’ Choice Challenge? Um, YES!?
Fox doesn’t mess around when it comes to very importantness for its home-cook-competition reality show. From Vogue, the brilliant, curmudgeonly lion of food writing Jeffrey Steingarten was on board. Amanda Hesser, of The New York Times/Mr. Latte fame, now running Food 52, would be there. So would critics from The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and more.
We all ended up sweating in an event tent in a studio parking lot together, meeting Gordon Ramsay, and witnessing how the MasterChef sausage gets made.
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Gordon Ramsay has a big head. Literally. His cranium is of kingly shape and proportion; a crown would look right at home upon it. Appearing in the green-room tent to greet the 17 food critics, he was extremely nice, no yelling (though he did engage in a little schadenfreude, relating that when he introduced the critics’ challenge, the contestants “turned white faster than I can dissect an orange”). Co-host Christina Tosi, the inquisitive and occasionally avenging angel of the show, was all calm charm, evanescent, wearing sparkly sneakers. Guest host Richard Blais had the watchful, thoughtful aspect of a scruffily handsome owl. All three had that ineffable quality — a glow about them — that made it quite clear why they are on TV and the rest of us are not.
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The food in the MasterChef green room is terrible. Even when food critics are there: squishy store-bought bagels, underripe strawberries, French Vanilla Coffee-mate. Upon visiting, Ramsay apologized for it in a way that suggested helplessness. This was received politely, but privately we cracked jokes about how our riders must’ve gotten lost. And yes, absolutely, #foodcriticproblems, but still …
MasterChef has vanquished the space-time continuum. Making television involves an amount of waiting that turns time surreal, especially if you’re one of 17 food critics in a green room that is actually an event tent, in a studio parking lot, with the A/C slowly failing. The food critics, uncomplaining, sweated lightly together, in various states of nerves; some of us tacitly took turns standing in front of a fan.
And on reality TV, reality itself is, shall we say, flexible. On the episode, the food critics stride out onto the MasterChef catwalk and lean against the railing. Gordon Ramsay says to the contestants, “Red team, blue team — whatever you do, don’t look up on the balcony.”
Close-up on contestant Tonarria: “Insanity! These food critics are spread out across the whole balcony. Crap! This is a big deal.” Close-up on contestant Brandi: “These critics are stone-cold killers. I can just feel their death stares glaring at me, watching every single move I make and waiting for me to make a mistake.”
The critics and the contestants were only together in that room briefly. Earlier, we were asked to stand along the balcony and act like we were watching the contestants cook, as a camera on a giant hydraulic arm swooped back and forth like a prehistoric raptor, hissing ominously. (I tried to look critical, hand on hip. Success?!) Then, more waiting.
The tasting on MasterChef is done cold. Before the food critics went into the glitzy MasterChef restaurant to judge the two teams’ dishes, we were instructed that, due to the vagaries of the MasterChef space-time continuum, the food would not be hot when it got to us. (“When you’re critiquing, you’re gonna kind of skip over that part,” a producer said. “Gordon and Christina taste cold food all the time.”) It was definitely not hot: Sauces had congealed, and a sort of rigor mortis had set in on both the Blue Team’s halibut and the Red Team’s duck.
Which was better, all things considered? Afterward, the critics’ consensus was that it was pretty much a draw. Both teams’ work would’ve made you sit up and take notice at a friend’s house, given the degree of effort, but you’d have been surreptitiously reaching for the salt and pepper.
Food critics are not monsters. Many of the 17 knew each other. During downtime, New York Magazine’s Adam Platt and Saveur editor-in-chief Adam Sachs discussed sourdough starter. The friendship of Amanda Hesser and her Food 52 co-founder Merrill Stubbs was sweetly apparent. I loved talking shop with Bill Daley from the Chicago Tribune and Tim Carman from The Washington Post. The intimidating glamour of Stephanie Kordan from HuffPo — the one who says the halibut’s sauce “enchanted the fish” on the show — was only surpassed by her niceness.
Jeffrey Steingarten was inimitable, a gem, and doubtless the realest thing in Los Angeles that day. During the drawn-out tasting segment, he hollered for more wine. On the way out, against orders, he stopped up the whole procession to actually talk to the contestants. The producers kept that in, the most human moment of the show.
Yes, being on MasterChef was fun. It was also nerve-wracking and boring, and, somehow, sometimes all three at once. I wished the food critics could have, without going off-script Steingarten-style, interacted with the four contestants — they all seemed like such nice people! (Learning about David’s temper tantrum while watching the show was disconcerting, but …) I did not get much airtime at all, as I expected: There were bigger-name fish to fry. But the 17 of us, flown in from all over the country and put up in a hotel on Fox’s dime, ended up on the air for approximately three minutes of a two-hour show. It seemed crazy. But that’s, as they say, entertainment.
This story was corrected at 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 15 to reflect that the critics and the contestants were in the MasterChef kitchen together briefly.